Friday, March 9, 2018

Irish Soda Bread: What's Traditional?

Can St. Patrick's Day go by without at least one loaf of Irish soda bread?  Or perhaps two or more? 

Perhaps you've always eaten store-bought Irish Soda Bread but now you are ready to bake your own Irish Soda Bread?  But you've come across dozens of recipes and you don't know which is the most "traditional"?

The big question, of course, is what exactly IS Irish soda bread?  So many thoughts and opinions; let's see if we can sort it out.
This traditional Irish Soda Bread recipe with 4 ingredients from Fine Cooking 

From DoChara, the "Insider's Guide to Ireland": 

First of all let’s get some things straight: Traditional Irish Soda Bread does not contain any fruit, eggs or fats such as butter or margarine.
If these are included in any recipe you find, it may be nice bread, it may even be Spotted Dog, but it isn’t Irish Soda Bread!  
There are just four simple ingredients required, flour, bread soda, buttermilk and salt but you need the right simple ingredients to get the best results.

DoChara talks about the right kind of flour, the right kind of milk (buttermilk or slightly soured whole milk), and the right way to get that soda bread into the oven.  So you may well wish to click over to that DoChara link. That's a great site, by the way, for traditional recipes but also so, so much information about Ireland. 

Abigail's Bakery presents an article called "The History of Irish Soda Bread."  Abigail makes these points:

  • It is "traditional" only back to the 1840's, as baking soda wasn't introduced to Ireland until that time.
  • It contains only flour, soured milk, salt, and baking soda.. No fruits, butter, or honey.  (She and DoChara agree on that.)
  • Before baking, a cross is cut on the top with a knife, to ward off the devil and protect the household. 
  • There are variations in the way the bread is shaped and cut from place to place in Ireland. 

I'm going to echo DoChara, Fine Cooking, and Abigail:  Traditional Irish Soda Bread has four ingredients.  Not 5 or 6 or 8 or 9.   

A blog called Serious Eats is very definite that: 
Most Irish soda bread includes raisins. However, I don't like raisins. So if you're lookin' at the soda bread picture thinking that the raisins look suspiciously pink, it's because they are dried cranberries. Use raisins if you prefer. 
This is an American-style soda bread. The original Irish soda bread didn't have raisins. Or cranberries. Some American-style Irish soda bread also includes caraway. This one doesn't, but if you like it, feel free to add two to four tablespoons of caraway along with the dry ingredients. You can always go gluten-free with rice flours."
So...  the recipe at Serious Eats won't make you traditional Irish soda bread, but it sounds delicious anyway.  HERE are two non-traditional recipes using fruits, butter, even whiskey.

The recipe from Mother...

Finally I found a very old, typed self-published cookbook by a man named James Smyth who says that he learned how to make Irish soda bread from his Irish mother.  His soda bread is fairly plain, no fruits, but it does contain butter, and it contains "sweet milk" instead of buttermilk.  "Sweet milk" is simply what we would call whole milk today.  If a recipe calls for sour milk, you can usually use buttermilk or add a bit of vinegar to whole milk and let it sit for a few minutes, as described HERE:

If you have an old recipe that calls for sour milk, just take a cup of milk (or the amount called for in your recipe) and add about 1 or 2 teaspoons of vinegar, let sit a few minutes or so, stir and you have sour milk. Or you can use buttermilk. (08/07/2007)

Simple and "traditional"

I'm going to include four Irish soda bread recipes, one very simple and traditional, one simple but with butter.  Then two different Irish Soda bread recipes with the works:  Fruits, ginger, butter, egg, honey, and one with whiskey (serious eats).

All of these recipes use baking soda for rising, salt, flour (though some are more specific about the type of flour), milk (though some are more specific about the kind of milk).  After that, the recipes diverge.  But all should be formed into a round loaf, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches high, and a cross should then be cut into the top.. Then into the oven!

Simple, Basic Irish Soda Bread HERE:

Make sure you read the descriptions of the right flour, the right milk, and the "secrets to success" before you plunge into this simple recipe.  


  • 4 cups Irish white flour or unbleached flour or all-purpose flour
    (1 lb Imperial or 450 grams Metric)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Baking soda (also called bread soda or bicarbonate of soda)
    (1 level teaspoon Imperial or Metric measures)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
    (1 level teaspoon Imperial or Metric measures)
  • 2 cups unhomogenized buttermilk
    (3/4 pint Imperial or 0.5 litres Metric)
Directions can be found HERE.

Fine Cooking 4 ingredient soda bread (see the photo at the top) can be found HERE.

Here's a basic recipe with a few changes for those using a bread machine from Abigail's Bakery.

Finally, James Smyth's mother's recipe:


  • 4 cups white flour
  • 1 T butter
  • 1/2 T salt
  • 1 T baking soda 
  • 1 cup sweet milk  (whole milk)   

  • Mix all dry ingredients well together with your fingers.
  • Add the milk.
  • Form the dough into a round ball with your floured hands.
  • Put it on a floured baking sheet and flatten into a circle 1 1/2 inches thick.
  • Make a cross through the center.
  • Bake at 425 degrees for 35 minutes.  (This recipe doesn't mention preheating the oven, but I certainly would.)

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